Trauma and The Brain


The Two-Part Brain Model

One of the first steps in beginning your journey of healing is understanding the way your brain works. Most of us think that our brain is just one individual thing. In reality, our brains are made up of multiple parts, and one of your primary goals is to get the different parts of your brain to work together effectively.

Think of your brain like an orchestra. An orchestra has different sections: the violins, the flutes, the trumpets. Each of these sections has an important part to play in a performance, but they have to work together in order to make music. If the violins are out of tune or the flutes play faster than the other instruments, things will fall apart. The same is true of your brain: the different parts need to work together.

Your brain has three main parts:

  • The reptilian brain
  • The limbic system
  • The neocortex

In our discussion here, we’ll focus on two parts: the limbic system and one specific area of the neocortex, the prefrontal cortex.

The limbic system is where our instinctual drives originate and where our pleasure centers are located. The limbic system focuses on three primary drives:

  • Survival
  • Avoiding pain
  • Seeking pleasure

These drives are powerful and mostly occur on a subconscious level.

In contrast to the instinctual limbic system, the conscious and rational part of our brain is the prefrontal cortex. This is where abstract thinking, analysis, and behavior regulation occurs.

The Effects of Trauma

The limbic system and prefrontal cortex both play important roles in the brain, but trauma can intensify your limbic system’s responses to the world. Traumatic memories and the fear associated with them are stored in the limbic system, and the trauma can influence the way you react to things. Your limbic system can make you feel unsafe even when there’s nothing to be afraid of. For example, if you see someone who looks like your abuser, your limbic system will tell you that you should be afraid even though there’s no danger. Abuse and trauma can lead to a limbic system that disrupts day-to-day life by reacting to situations in counterproductive ways.

The limbic system can overpower your prefrontal cortex. In other words, your survival instinct will override your rational thoughts. Learning to manage normal survival responses from your limbic system in a healthy way with the help of your prefrontal cortex is what the healing process is all about. The 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope are specifically designed to help your limbic system and prefrontal cortex communicate and work together.

An Example

You are in the grocery store walking down an aisle. Suddenly, you see an individual who reminds you of your abuser. Your limbic system sends an alarm signal. Your limbic system cannot differentiate the past from the present and is just doing its job to warn you of a perceived danger. You feel yourself get nauseated and walk out of the store without finishing your shopping. You drive away frustrated that you cannot find peace.

An experience like this can feel defeating. You wonder why you are having such a strong reaction in a situation where there’s no real danger. As you come to understand how your brain works and why it does what it does, you can become empowered to manage difficult experiences like this using the 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope.

Consider this alternative example.

While in the grocery story aisle, you see someone who reminds you of your abuser. Your limbic system screams out that you are in danger. You take a moment to be aware of what is happening. You acknowledge the feelings coming from your limbic system. The conscious part of your brain makes a decision that the individual you see is not your abuser. You are not in danger. You refocus your thoughts by employing the 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope and continue shopping.

You have accomplished some level of healing through successfully managing a trigger. The perceived danger did not derail your day. You finished your shopping and left the grocery store empowered by your ability to choose your responses to normal triggers that will appear in day-to-day living.

Learn More About The 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope